Denise was smiling as she said to me, “My brother, Thierry, chooses not to grow up, ever. He still helps our aunt and uncle with their hotel, as he’s done since we were both at school. He will be Chinon’s oldest bartender, I think.”
“He lets me help him,” Noah said.
“Oh yes, he always likes to have your help. It means less work for him.” She kissed him lightly on the head. “And if you’re such an eager helper, you can help me with the decorations for tonight.”
I couldn’t think why she’d need decorations for tonight until I realized it was New Year’s Eve—the feast of Saint-Sylvestre here in France. At my friend Ricky’s house they’d always had a full-on party, filled the house with neighbors, but Denise assured me things at the Maison des Marronniers weren’t that elaborate.
“Claudine likes to do things simply. There will only be the five of us.” She handed me a small box. “Here, I’ll give you the balloons, if you don’t mind? Noah will waste them all by popping them.”
I disliked the sound of balloons popping, so I was careful to blow them up slowly, to Noah’s frustration. Diablo, unimpressed by my efforts, retreated to a shadowed corner of the salon while we strung the paper banners that said “Bonne Année!” above the lovely windows of the dining room, and fastened clusters of balloons to all the chair backs, and hung stars of silver glitter where Denise directed us to hang them while she set the table with fine china and cut-crystalware and candles with more silver stars and glitter balls strewn round them for good measure.
By the time Claudine arrived home from wherever she had been, we’d nearly finished with the salon, too, and everything looked festive.
“This is perfect,” she announced, and hung her coat up in the entry hall before she spread her arms to give a double kiss to Noah. “You’ve been busy, darling. Aren’t you clever?”
“Madame Thomas helped.”
“Then she is clever, too.” Claudine included me in her warm smile and joined us in the salon, looking up towards the ceiling. “All we need now is the mistletoe.”
We British liked our mistletoe at Christmas, but in France it was a ritual of New Year’s Eve, as I had learned in childhood.
Noah said, “Papa is bringing it.”
As if on cue, the sound of footsteps scuffed against the stone walk in the garden at the back. Before the rear door to the kitchen opened on a gust of wind and slammed again the boy had started running, and Luc barely had the time to shake his coat and clear the rain from it and step into the dining room before he had to kneel to intercept a flying hug.
With both their heads so close together it was even easier to notice the resemblance. It was more than just their eye color—I saw it in the angle of their jawlines and the quickness of their smiles. Luc hugged his son back tightly with his one free hand—his other hand was taken by a plastic-handled shopping bag that bulged.
“You got my messages?” asked Noah.
“Yes, all five of them.”
Denise, who’d come through from the kitchen also and was standing in the arched door with her apron smudged from cooking, said, “I can’t believe I didn’t think to get it at the market. We were right there.”
“It’s no trouble finding mistletoe,” Luc told her.
Noah asked him, “But the blowpipes! Did you find the blowpipes?”
“Yes, of course. And hats. See here.” Luc reached into the shopping bag and pulled a pointed party hat from deep within it. “Look, it has a light that flashes if you push it there. And this,” he said, “is even better. This is mine.” He drew it out and put it on his head—a rather ridiculous novelty hat made of shiny foil card with a small sprig of mistletoe stuck to its brim.
“Very subtle,” said Denise, but as he stood and handed her the bag she kissed him anyway, a friendly kiss that looked no different from the one he coaxed from Claudine when he came through to the salon to give her a proper greeting. Then he was in front of me, and smiling, so I kissed him too, as lightly as the others had. His face was cold and smelled of wood smoke and the damp outdoors. I liked it. I liked him.
“I have a hat for you as well. And you,” he told Claudine. “Yours has a light on it, like Noah’s.”
Claudine thanked him. “Very kind of you.” Her tone was dry. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll wait and wear it after dinner.”
“As we all should,” said Denise, removing Noah’s hat and nudging him affectionately forward. “Go and keep Papa from getting into trouble while I finish cooking dinner. You can show him your new card trick.”
“Not another one?” Luc’s groan sounded real, but the way Noah grinned in reply made me realize his father was teasing and everyone knew it.
“It’s a good one,” the boy promised. “One of the waitresses at the hotel showed me.”
Luc grinned in his turn. “Hanging out with the waitresses, were you?”
“He’ll claim it was only professional interest,” Denise said, “but notice he never asks me if I know any tricks with the cards I can teach him.”
Her son turned to look at her. “Do you?”
“I might have learned one or two when I was your age.”
“Did they have cards when you were my age?” Noah asked. For all my difficulty reading people’s tones and their expressions, I was fairly sure from looking at him that he hadn’t meant that as an insult. Children his age sometimes had no proper sense of history as a timeline—to them, everything that happened in the years before their birth was “history,” tangled dates that intersected freely without context. I remembered asking my own mother one day after school how many traitors she had gone to see beheaded at the Tower.